There is nothing more stressful for a political strategist than the final days of a campaign. If you’re winning—you’re terrified of screwing it up. If you’re losing—you’re just terrified.
So in that light, I find myself reflecting on my own time in the hot seat as campaign director of the Alberta Liberal Party in 2012. By an organizer’s standards, it was a good campaign—in that I only threatened to quit a handful of times, and only actually did once.
The day I did walk off—for about 10 minutes before calming down (an unforgivably long break in the pressure cooker of a general election)—was the Monday exactly one week before the vote.
On that particular day, Liberal leader Raj Sherman was in Calgary, having an online forum with other party leaders. In an inquiry that looks ludicrous with the benefit of hindsight, Raj was asked what his price would be to support a minority government.
Raj’s laundry list was impressive. He wanted—at a minimum—to be deputy premier, health minister, and have a seat on the all-powerful Treasury Board.
I was furious. What he said was artless, sure, but 28 days is a long time—you’re going to say something artless.
Unforgivable to me, however, was that it wasn’t the message of the day. It—along with my temporary self-termination—were examples of how in the final days, a campaign is its own worst enemy.
* * *
Before an election writ is dropped, all political parties put together message calendars for their campaigns. They create broad themes that reinforce the central campaign message. They plan smaller announcements that reinforce those broad themes. On each day of the campaign, they know exactly what they want to be talking about, and how.
It’s all done to reinforce the party’s “ballot question.” A ballot question is what the party wants voters to be thinking about when they cast their vote. Successful campaigns define ballot questions that the party is the only natural answer to.
The campaign most successful at defining a good ballot question is—more often than not—the campaign that wins.
While there’s certainly an art to setting a ballot question—where most campaigns stumble is not on construction, but on execution. You see, you can convince yourself that just about any plan will work for approximately 10 days less than the amount of time it takes to execute a plan.
“Stay the course,” you tell yourself at first—trust the plan. But then doubt sets in.
You see your opponents act in ways you don’t expect. Should you course-correct to match their moves? You’re hearing from vocal supporters that your entire plan of action is wrong, and they have the silver bullet you’re looking for. Do you load your gun up with it and fire?
Maybe you’re way up, but want to change your message to keep it from feeling stale. Maybe you’re way down and are starting to wonder if it’s time for a ‘Hail Mary.’
Up or down, the pressures are the same—change course, or else.
* * *
Monday, April 16, 2012 was supposed to be about the Liberal progressive tax rate, which reinforced our savings-focused fiscal plan, which reinforced the overall Liberal vision. We were positioning ourselves as a decidedly un-PC organization and were positioning the Tories as no different from the Wildrose.
So Raj’s idea that the PCs were tolerable—let alone a viable partner in a coalition government—was decidedly off-message.
The damage was done. Details on the fiscal plan he was supposed to be pushing were mentioned in the final paragraph of a very long front-page story headlined, “Liberals issue demands under minority rule.”
Ultimately, Raj was not a particularly disciplined leader, but the election would not turn on his comments that day in any case. Front-page news or not, Raj wouldn’t be the big story on that particular Monday—here was another campaign under a bigger spotlight down the street about to impale on its own sword. The Wildrose had been leading in the polls and done a good job with its own ballot question. The Wildrose was offering us change and telling us we had nothing to fear.
But on that Monday, a blog post by Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger—in which he stated that homosexuals would spend “eternity in the lake of fire”—took on a life of its own. That issue became a distraction that was exacerbated when Danielle Smith decided to stand by her candidate before the backlash forced her to drop him entirely.
Two days later, she told a live audience at the CBC in Edmonton that science wasn’t settled on climate change. And with that, the die had been cast—her campaign was lost.
I wasn’t in the Wildrose war room, but I know it wasn’t “Deny Climate Change Day” on the campaign calendar, just as I know Monday wasn’t “Hold a Minority Government Ransom Day” or “Stand by your Homophobe Day.”
Danielle’s campaign faltered because it took its eyes off the prize. If the Wildrose had filtered its initial decision on Hunsperger through the lense of its ballot question, the Wildrose would have dropped him from the offset. Instead, the party decided to use the opportunity to look like the premier Danielle expected to be in a week and launch into a high-minded defence of free speech.
The problem? Just because Hunsperger was free to say it, doesn’t mean we’re compelled to like it. Just because you sound like a premier, doesn’t mean you get to be one.
The closing days of the 2012 election gave us the Wildrose “Lake of Fire,” Raj Sherman declaring he wanted to be deputy PM and health minister and Danielle Smith declaring the science to be unsettled on climate change.
Perhaps most notoriously, the closing days of the 1993 federal election gave us Kim Campbell’s attack ad on Jean Chretien that opponents accused of being about his Bell’s Palsy and that her candidates couldn’t disavow fast enough.
With both the PCs and NDP polling at levels they’ve never been before, the risks of similar campaign implosions have rarely seemed higher. Will the PCs fall apart—losing discipline entirely as candidates and MLAs abandon the party line, stripping and selling its secrets like copper from a condemned building?
Will more-extreme members of the NDP overreach—mistaking their success in the polls for Albertans fully embracing social democracy and say something that reinforces any reservations that may exist?
And, will the Wildrose have an act to follow up its 2012 performance?
What gifts will undisciplined campaigns and candidates give to Albertans in the final days of the 2015 campaign?